Review by Kent Manthie
There I was. A-wandering off the path of “normal” (again) when I came across Calavera, a new album by Viktar Siamashka, this groovy cat, about which I knew zero. Of course, that’s no reason to ignore what may be the album of the century or may be just noise and trash (and not in the good way). Either way, I hit “play” and passively sat back to hear what was ahead of me.
Before I get into possible meanings, interpretations, “sounds like”s and more, let me just say that this album, Calavera only has three tracks on it. BUT – the three aforementioned tracks are 23:10, 20:07 and 22:07, respectively, which gives it about an hour’s worth of timing. That’s a longer time frame than any EP and a typical time frame for what one would call a “full-length” album.
I received Calavera via the artist himself or his representative (indie distributor or something). Calavera has not been sitting around my apartment, gathering existential dust; rather it’s been a relatively recent time since I received it. Well, as I’m going through my “to-do” list here, I opened up the album and again noticed that there are only three songs on here – but, unless one lives in the bubble(gum) world of pop music, where the three-minute, radio-friendly upbeat, hook-laden “catchiness” matters, then it doesn’t matter how long the songs are or how many there are. As long as the music stays afloat, so to speak, and has that essence to it that really grabs you by the throat and shakes you up in whichever way, to thrill, chill and fill (you up with pleasure).
Viktar Siamashka is a man of the avant-garde and he fills your head with long pangs of stylish noise, premeditated breakdowns of sound, groovy interludes and it just keeps building and building. If you compare listening to this while staring straight at the computer or stereo or from wherever the sound emanates to listening to it while doing other things, like “surfing the ‘net” so to speak or playing with your pictures on Picasa 3 and creating artistic images out of simple photographs, etc. or even playing it as you read poetry or literary critiques on such things, the time will speed up and the next thing you know, 23 minutes have evaporated – where? I do not know. But, suffice it to say, the mind doesn’t forsake it. Just because your conscious may be busy doing other things, while still following the music in an alternating primary and secondary fashion, your unconscious does pick it all up, uninterrupted, so whether you think so or not, your mind has infused your brain with the totality of the structures and vagaries of the music, which, while it may not be enough to write a comprehensive review is definitely a beginning – you can then go back and replay it and when you do.
OK, I’m drifting a bit here. The music itself is what I could only categorize as “avant-garde”, which really encompasses a good bit of stuff that is ahead of its time (avant-garde=advance guard) and, while this is not futuristic, it does have this vibe that blends arcane cultures with structures of advanced brain activity that a lot of Western anthropologists, ethnomusicologists and the like keep stunning themselves when they come across such things. Then there’s the jazz component to it, which is an extension of an African vibe, but one that seamlessly combines both. We’re not talking “white boy” jazz or Kenny G here, the closest analog I can think of from recent history is Ornette Coleman and especially the latter works of John Coltrane, e.g., The Major Works of John Coltrane – a mind-blowing double CD of some of a dualistic dichotomy between demoniacal vibes that create tension due to the discordant sounds ‘Trane was able to get out of the sax, but at the same time it showed a very spiritual side of ‘Trane which, the more you listen to it and get over your Westernized ear which at first may discourage you from attuning yourself to it, imparts a seriously complex spiritual sensibility unmatched up to then and probably since then.
History: Viktar Siamashka is a native Belarusian (ne Byelorussia in the years when it was part of the USSR’s empire) poet, broadcaster, as well as a very good musician. In his search for that “lost chord” he’s been seeking out a certain synthesis of “free jazz”, a la Ornette Coleman, (aka “post-bop”). Viktar has been trying to key into that synthesis of “free jazz”, folklore, mixing in an academic state of musicianship as well as blending in some electronica. His trumpeting really reminds me of some of the late 60s, early 70s editions of Miles Davis’s ever-expanding palate. One can’t help but to hear Miles in there, especially among the second song of Calavera, “Emak Bakia”. To put it in perspective, the first tune, the longest, at 23:10, is the title track and the last cut is called “Bolero” which may or may not be a wildly different improv based on the classical piece. But, I think not. It doesn’t even come close to Ravel’s Bolero. This is a completely original piece which is filled with repetition, improvisation and wild woodwinds that snake around and about, coming together, though, in a wonderfully rhythmic adventure. It may seem a tad discordant at first, but after a time experiencing it, one sees the harmony that does flow through it like a tame river.
For many years Siamashka played in a music and poetic group called Kuzniec, Siamania as well as an intuitively improvisational outfit Knyaz Myshkin. Along the way he has also collaborated with psycho-folk band, Nagual. Since 2012, however, Viktar’s been concentrating on doing it solo. He’s been dedicating his output right now, to solo projects, such as this one. During his creatively artistic career, Siamashka has performed in many European Countries and has released a variety of solo albums including one called G.M. (which was published by Russian label, Clinical Archives); he also did a collaboration with French le grand improviseur, Christophe Meulien. The result has been the Biotope album and other, shorter pieces.
For many entrenched in the music of the culture of the West – whether it be rock or pop, jazz, electronica, etc. Viktar may seem like an anomaly, but he’s anything but. Even now, after 25 years since the ripping down of the Iron Curtain, there has been a surge of avant-garde jazz outfits that have sprung up and, though, they may not be huge in the US, have a presence in Eastern Europe. Cerkno is one example of a very avant-garde, beautifully improvisational, from the Czech Republic. There are a few others too. This is easy to understand when one knows how popular jazz – American jazz, back in the 50s and 60s – has been. Charlie Parker was huge in Europe. He was treated like royalty over there, as were others that followed such as Dexter Gordon, Miles Davis, of course, Coltrane and Ornette Coleman and many others. So, think about all those awful years of oppression in the tie of communism and the tyranny that clouded the area. All the while, there grew up a couple generations of jazz lovers who became more than just huge fans; they learned how to play and with the influences they had, they developed it into their own style which now, today, is available the world over and when it is heard, one is amazed at how ingenious it is. How unique and even the instrumentality of the bands are different but manage to fill spaces of lush, gorgeous bouquets of music.
Kudos to Viktar Siamashka and I hope to hear more of the experimental, avant-garde jazz, freely flowing out of a part of the world that has offered up artistic surprises a lot since the early 90s. A website you may wish to check out is www.foundamental.net – there you can find out more and find a way to get the catalog – that, or maybe see what Amazon.com has to offer. –KM.